It may be considered a minor holiday, but with its history of heroes and villains and bravery and self-dignity, Purim presents a very teachable moment.
Purim might be considered a minor holiday, but it "can save the Jewish people," as far as Mira Colflesh, education director at Congregation Tifereth Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Bensalem, is concerned.
So many holidays lack the element of fun, she explained, and kids need that to stay engaged with religion.
Purim not only "encapsulates joy," Colflesh continued, it provides an avenue for building community, remembering persecution, doing good deeds and reflecting on identity.
Of course, it's easy to get distracted from all that amid the costumes and groggers and hamantashen. Turning things upside down is part of the shtick, after all, and if you follow the Talmudic mandate to drink until you can't distinguish between Mordechai and Haman, how could you be expected to ponder the deeper meaning of such a fun-filled holiday?
To answer that question, the Jewish Exponent surveyed a few educators in the area. Here's how they delve beyond the carnival games to emphasize what's most important about the holiday.
At Congregation Kesher Israel, a traditional shul in Queen Village, prayer comes first; then festivities, said president Norman Millan. A real Megillah scroll from the early 1900s helps make the religious ritual extra special, he said. Adults who gather for an early morning minyan read the whole thing at 6:45 a.m. on the day of Purim. Parts of it are also read during an evening program, accompanied by a skit from Hebrew school students. Simply retelling the whole story every year reminds us that, even though the Jews thwarted Haman, ethnic groups around the world still face oppression today, Millan said.
While Purim is a joyful celebration of a Jewish triumph, teachers at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park show students how it parallels other, more somber instances of Jews facing adversity throughout history, said Rabbi Kevin Kleinman. The skits and songs might be cheeky, but the kids understand the weightier meaning, he said, noting how a group of sixth graders at their Blue Bell site came up with an "infomercial" against the letter H for Haman, Hitler and the misspelling of Hanukah.
Rabbi Leah Richman, head of religious education at the Conservative Temple Beth Hillel/Beth El in Wynnewood, presents Esther as a role model who used courage and bravery to fight persecution. Through Esther's example, Richman said, children learn the most important message of the holiday: "Stand up for who you are," and "be proud to be Jewish."
Colflesh, of Tifereth Israel, uses the Purim story to get students thinking about how they present themselves to others.
The plot revolves around hidden identity — Esther not admitting her religion when she marries the King of Persia and Haman pretending to be a loyal adviser when he really intends to usurp power, Colflesh explained.
Within this context, a mask-making workshop becomes a metaphor for how "all the different masks we wear can genuinely reveal something about us — but they also conceal something," Colflesh said. Older kids discuss who they are around their friends compared to when they are at home, or at synagogue. The point, she said, is "that it's OK to have many aspects of who you are."
From an ethical platform, Purim presents an entryway to debate how the memory of past horrors should play into Jewish identity — and how that could be valuable or dangerous, said Rabbi Helen Plotkin, director of Mekom Torah, an educational center for teens and adults organized by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College; Congregation Beth Israel of Media, a Reconstructionist synagogue; and Ohev Shalom, a Conservative shul in Wallingford.
For example, during the Megillah reading, Plotkin said, in order to drown out every mention of Haman's name with noisemakers, listeners must spend the entire time concentrating on "the enemy." On the one hand, she said, "we have to remember the bad guys and hate them or we lose who we are."
On the other hand, she continued, "If we focus all our energy on them, we lose the positive aspects of our community."
Plotkin also uses Purim to launch into theological discussions. While the power of God directly correlates to the miracles of the Passover story, here the success of the Jews seems dependent on a bizarre comedy of errors, she said.
So "when things are tough, where do we put our hope — on grand miracles, on pure chance, or on faith that there's a hidden nudge toward the good and that we can push the rest of the way with our bravery and our humility?"
There's never an easy, absolute answer, Plotkin said, so students end up getting "more and more depth to both sides of the argument."
"Living your life in between those two ways of seeing things, and with the questions live on your lips, that is the Jewish way of proceeding," Plotkin said. "What you have to do is not give up on the question."
If Purim allows us to "have a big party and have fun while still keeping these complex issues alive in conversations," Plotkin said, "that's just fantastic."